Catching up with... Nigel Gibbs

The first in a series of long-form audio interviews with people who made an impact for Watford on or off the pitch.

  Nigel Gibbs at the Grove hotel, Watford, March 2018. Photograph by Simon Gill

Nigel Gibbs at the Grove hotel, Watford, March 2018. Photograph by Simon Gill

by Lionel Birnie

I've interviewed a lot of Watford players over the years but those interviews have always been for written projects. An interview that's intended for an audience to listen to is a completely different thing.

I've teamed up with the excellent From the Rookery End podcast to contribute to a series called Catching Up With...

Who better to be the first guest than a one-club man who can justifiably claim the title Mr Watford – not that he'd dream of doing so because he's too modest?

Earlier this year I met Nigel Gibbs at the Grove hotel where we chatted over coffee about the highs and lows of his Watford career, which spanned two decades and some incredible highs which sandwiched a period of decline for the club in the 1990s.

It's more a conversation than an interview and I hope you enjoy it.

iTunes /

The World Cup of Watford Shirts

Watford unveiled their 2018-19 home shirt this week and the World Cup starts tomorrow, so we thought we'd mark the two events and launch the World Cup of Watford Shirts to find out which is the best Hornets shirt of modern times.

The Twitter polls will be run on the @goldblacktees page between now and the end of next week.

Thirty-two home shirts have been drawn in eight groups of four and each winning shirt will progress to the quarter-finals. Each poll will be open for 24 hours. Group A is online now so get voting...

A big thanks to the brilliant Historical Kits for letting us use their illustrations. You can go straight to their Watford page here.


It's not how you start, it's how you finish

Two years ago, Watford faced Aston Villa at Vicarage Road and trailed the already-relegated visitors 2-1 going into injury time. Villa had been reduced to ten men with quarter of an hour left and, coming a week after a deflating FA Cup semi-final defeat against Crystal Palace, the tetchy atmosphere among the Watford supporters was not surprising.

Then Troy Deeney – disliked by Villa fans because of his well-known allegiance to Birmingham City  and a target for their abuse all afternoon – scored twice to turn the tables on the beleaguered opposition. Watford had been on the receiving end of similarly unjust outcomes during two previous spells in the Premier League so it was, to my mind, one of the high spots of that season. Five goals, a red card and a late, undeserved comeback to steal the points from a side who probably merited more.

On the walk back to the car, a fellow supporter engaged me in conversation, unprompted. ‘Awful,’ he said. ‘Awful.’

I had to wonder if he’d left early and missed the comeback.

‘Did you not see the two late goals?’ I asked.

‘Just papering over the cracks,’ he replied. ‘The football is awful. We need to get rid of this bloke.’

He was referring to the head coach, Quique Sanchez Flores.

‘I think we should be careful what we wish for,’ I said.

‘Well, it can’t get any worse.’

* * *

Last season, under Walter Mazzarri, arguably it did get worse.

Watford rarely earned plaudits for style but did enough in the first half of the season to avoid fretting about relegation at the end. They could even afford to lose the last six (failing to score in five of them). With the benefit of hindsight it’s clear the three no-frills home wins over Sunderland (1-0), West Brom (2-0) and Swansea (1-0) in April were the key to securing survival.

At least under Sanchez Flores there was a solid streak running through the side. Mazzarri, for all that his touchline antics gave the impression he was a ruthless operator, allowed a soft centre to develop. Under Sanchez Flores the goals for and against columns read 40-50. Under Mazzarri it was 40-68. This season it stands at 42-60 with three games, including trips to Tottenham and Manchester United, remaining.

One thing all three Premier League seasons have in common it’s that there has been a marked decline in the final third of each campaign. There’s an old cliché that applies here: it’s not how you start that counts, it’s how you finish, and Watford are getting into a habit of freewheeling over the line from a long way out.

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* * *

When this season ends it may be that we look at the back-to-back 1-0 home wins over Everton and West Brom as the two results that clinched a fourth season of Premier League football. Last month a supporter at the club’s At Our Place event described these victories – tense, cagey affairs against unambitious opposition and each decided by late Deeney goals – as boring.

While it would be hard to make a case for either match being a rollercoaster of heart-stopping drama there was a certain engaging tension about both matches and the relief of breaking the deadlock and standing firm meant the final whistle was greeted with cheers and clenched fists each time. But the comment did make me wonder what it is we actually want.

When we’re grinding out results, we want free-flowing flair. When we’re playing more expansive football, as was the case against Bournemouth, and for the first half against both Burnley and Crystal Palace, but don’t win, we want the result.

But what was more ‘enjoyable’. Grinding out six points against Everton and West Brom, or collecting only two points from three matches during which the team tried to be open and offensive. What matters most, the points or the entertainment? And are they mutually-exclusive for a side destined to finish in a lower-mid-table position?

It’s a question to ponder as the season peters out and our sense of optimism is restored over the summer by a three-month absence from Vicarage Road.

When Watford played Barcelona – and the story of a shirt


by Lionel Birnie

A year or so ago, I paid an uncomfortable amount of money for a match-worn Watford shirt that was being sold on eBay. It’s a beautiful thing. Manufactured by Umbro for use in warm conditions, it’s made from an airtex cotton material punctured with little holes. The badge and Umbro logo are embroidered onto the chest, the lettering spelling out the name of the sponsor Iveco is pressed into the fabric, and a felt number eight is stitched to the back.

I started to do a bit of detective work on the provenance of the shirt and, according to a very well-informed source, it was almost certainly worn by Maurice Johnston for the opening game of the 1984-85 season against Manchester United at Old Trafford. It was also, more likely than not, worn by Johnston during the pre-season trip to Majorca, where Watford played Barcelona for the first – and so far only – time.

As an aside, I had not realised that Watford had worn a version of this cotton airtex shirt in the 1984 FA Cup final but close examination of photographs taken at Wembley show the texture clearly.

* * *

Anyway, the story of how Watford came to play Barcelona in the now-demolished Luis Sitjar Stadium in Palma in August 1984 has always amused me.

Not long after the FA Cup final, which Watford lost to Everton, Graham Taylor told John Ward, his first team coach, that he was taking a break with his wife Rita and daughters and would not be contactable for a couple of weeks. Taylor left Ward in charge with the instructions, ‘If anything comes up, handle it.’

A few days later, former Watford player Gerry Armstrong, who had joined Real Mallorca a year earlier, rang the club with a proposal. How would the Hornets like to take part in a pre-season tournament in Majorca with Barcelona, Real Mallorca and Rapid Vienna?

Ward asked Bertie Mee what he thought. Mee replied to the effect, ‘The gaffer left you in charge. What do you reckon?’

Thinking that an all-expenses trip to Majorca to check out the hotel and training facilities, hear more about the tournament and catch up with Armstrong was not a bad offer, Ward made the trip to the Balearic island.

Armstrong showed Ward round Palma. The hotel was great, the training facilities first-class, there was a good amount of money on offer for taking part, and the chance to play Barcelona was not to be sniffed at either. Ward accepted the invitation.

By the time the trip came round, things had changed a bit. Rapid Vienna had pulled out and were replaced by Universidad, a side from Chile. Watford's schedule was to play two matches on consecutive evenings – Barcelona, then Real Mallorca. The hotel and training ground Ward had been shown had been allocated to Barcelona and Watford were on the other side of town, a little too close to the tourist traps and nightspots. There was nowhere convenient to train and no swimming pool. 'The games are kicking off at 10pm because it’s so hot even in the evening and it’s what they do over there,' Ward said when I interviewed him for Enjoy the Game. 'I’d not known that. Basically, I'd got it all wrong.'

To make matters worse, Taylor's nemesis Terry Venables had been appointed manager of Barcelona and the game against Watford was to be his first fixture in charge. The two managers had spent the best part of five years sniping at one another in the press. Venables criticised the Vicarage Road slope and Watford's long-ball game, Taylor hit back with barbs about Queens Park Rangers' plastic pitch and reliance on the offside trap. It added an extra bit of needle to the match although Taylor recalled, 'I had no problem with Terry, and I don't think he had a problem with me. Yes, I made comments about the plastic pitch and I didn't like their offside trap, but there was no nastiness involved. Where I think the rivalry got stoked up was by Terry's supporters in the press.'

With the First Division campaign kicking off against Manchester United a week later it was not the ideal way to fine-tune for the season. Temperatures were so high during the day that they couldn't do much in the way of physical conditioning work. The matches were played late in the evening and it was well past midnight by the time the players got back to the hotel. By the time they'd wound down from the match it was the middle of the night.

* * *

There were around 22,000 spectators in the stadium to watch Watford play Barcelona on Friday, August 17.

Barcelona were a big club but they weren't quite the globally-admired colossus they are today. They'd not won the Spanish title in a decade and were yet to win their first European Cup.

Terry Venables was a respected coach and had just guided QPR to fifth place in the First Division but it's hard to imagine Barca making such a recruitment today. Their star player was the German midfielder Bernd Schuster and their big summer signing had been Scottish striker Steve Archibald, from Tottenham. As it turned out, they went on to win the league championship during Venables' debut season.

Taylor used the game as an opportunity to experiment with a European-style formation, although his hand was partly forced because a couple of his key defenders were not 100 per cent fit. Wilf Rostron played as a sweeper behind a back three of David Bardsley, Lee Sinnott and Kenny Jackett. Les Taylor sat just in front of them as a deep-lying midfielder. Nigel Callaghan and John Barnes played wide with Maurice Johnston, George Reilly and Luther Blissett operating as a front three, Blissett taking up a position just behind the other two.

Things got off to the worst possible start. In the first minute, Sinnott slipped in the penalty area and handled the ball. Schuster scored from the penalty spot. Rojo scored a second for Barcelona, Johnston pulled one back before half-time and the second half was seen out at little more than walking pace at times, with the score ending 2-1 to the Catalan side.

'I just remember it being so hot and humid,' said Les Taylor. 'We were a week away from the start of our season but the Spanish League didn't start until September so they didn't want a high tempo game. It was too hot anyway, we were breaking out in a sweat just jogging. Even though it was ten o'clock at night, it was still very warm and it was difficult to play in those conditions. I remember trying to mark Schuster but he would drop really deep to get the ball and then pop up on the edge of our box without us realising how he'd got there. He was always a step ahead and you could see his quality.'

* * *

The next night, Watford faced Real Mallorca and again lost 2-1. Playing in front of their home crowd – around 30,000 – Mallorca were keen to win the game and played in a more competitive, and more cynical, spirit than Barcelona had done.

At some point one of the Mallorca players spat at George Reilly as they jostled for position at a corner. Reilly reacted by administering a forearm smash. The referee approached the Watford bench and told them to substitute Reilly or have him sent off.

'The centre half spat in my face, and it smelled of garlic, I swear,' said Reilly. 'I dropped him one and the linesman hadn’t seen it. The crowd were booing me. Graham substituted me and said, "If you ever do that again you’ll never play for this club again." I said, right, so if I spit in your face now, what are you going to do? He said “What?" I said, "Smell this. It’s garlic. He spat in my face." He didn’t fine me or drop me. He knew when the provocation was too much.'

* * *

While they'd been in Majorca, stories had appeared in the press about Maurice Johnston, who was agitating for a move to Celtic.

Gerry Armstrong recalls the story. 'Maurice said to me, "I've done a story for one of the papers, it’s coming out on Sunday." Graham hated his players talking to the press. So I said, "What sort of story is it? Is it a bad one?"

'Mo said, "Well, I’ve had a bit of a go at Graham."

'I said, "Oh you haven’t. Well, you’re in trouble now. He’ll come back at you. If you want to leave, you have to play it his way and he’ll make it happen for you but he has to look out for the club’s interests so you have to do it his way. If I was you, I’d try to stop the story."

'He said he'd tried to stop the story but the paper was still running it, so I said he should have a word with Graham before it came out.'

Watford flew home from Majorca on the Sunday. Whether Taylor saw the tabloid story or not, he did recall being handed an envelope containing Johnston's formal transfer request when they got on the coach to go to the airport.

Taylor said, 'Thanks Maurice. It's Sunday and I don't work on Sundays so I shall open it tomorrow.'

* * *

On the plane, Taylor and Ward sat next to each other. Ward was wincing because the trip had been a disaster for one reason and another. Back-to-back matches in hot conditions, little time to train and prepare for the Manchester United match, and with a rumble of discontent over the players' bonus structure for the coming season.

Ward braced himself. 'Graham had been fantastic, and never said a word to me,' he said. 'I felt terrible about it. The players haven’t really kicked off but they weren’t too happy about it. No one knows I’ve planned the trip but I’ve heard the odd grumble. I’m just keeping my head down because I know what’s coming.'

Taylor buckled his seat belt, leaned over and said, 'Well, Wardy, I don't think we'll be doing that again.'

'It was so simple,' said Ward, 'but it was the biggest put down I’ve ever had. He had hated the trip but he’d put up with it because he knew he’d let me get on with [planning] it. I’d got it wrong but he hadn’t given me a hard time about it. It was the mark of the man.'

* * *

'It was a difficult summer in many ways,' said Taylor, when I asked him about the months following the 1984 FA Cup final. 'We'd had this cup run and the game at Wembley and the result had not gone for us, and more than that, the performance had not been the sort of performance we expected of ourselves.

'I was more than interested to see which way it was going to go the following season. Would we suffer a hangover from the cup final? We had this situation with Maurice as well. He had scored such a lot of goals in a short space of time that it was going to be very difficult for us to keep hold of him. I loved managing him in many ways because he kept me on my toes, but I knew I could not prevent him from going to a club like Glasgow Celtic. He was a Scottish boy and they would be playing in European competition, which we couldn't offer him at that time because we hadn't qualified.

'In a lot of ways a move to Celtic suited us because it meant he wouldn't be playing against us for another First Division club, so I wasn't unhappy about the idea of him going there but we had to do the transfer in the correct way. I had to make sure the club's interests were looked after and that meant getting the best price we could for him. And I couldn't have a player saying this, that and the other in the newspapers. But Maurice was a mischievous lad, I couldn't keep him totally under control.'

What about the suggestion that Watford's players were agitating for better bonuses.

'I do remember that after the cup final the players felt they should have been rewarded and I do remember the negotiations going on longer than was perhaps ideal. I wanted players to concentrate on the football and I didn't like discussions about money getting in the way of that.'

As Nigel Callaghan recalled: 'All through pre-season Taylor wasn’t happy because someone had questioned him and there was too much talk about money. By the time we came to the first game of the season away at Man United, GT was saying, "This was the worst pre-season we’ve ever had. If you’re not absolutely on your game they’re going to murder you, and it’s on TV and we’re going to look stupid." He wasn’t happy at all. But we drew 1-1. I got the goal in the last minute. We murdered United for most of the match, we were the best side that day and a draw was the least we deserved. We were on Match of the Day that night.'

When I asked Taylor if he remembered telling the players it had been the worst pre-season ever, he laughed. 'Quite possibly. That sounds like the sort of thing I'd say every now and then, but sometimes it was just to get the players up on their toes, especially with a game like Manchester United away on the first day. We lost heavily at Tottenham on the first day one season [1985] and we just weren't right and we paid the price, so it can happen.'

* * *

And that brings us back to the shirt. Maurice Johnston's shirt, worn in that game at Old Trafford, probably, and against Barcelona, possibly. He was my favourite player back then, and his transfer to Celtic, when it came, stung, although Luther Blissett's return from Milan eased the sense of rejection.

The shirt is neatly folded, in a box with a few other gems collected over the years. How did the shirt find its way onto eBay? I don't know, and the seller wouldn't say when asked, although he did sell No. 10 and No. 14 from the same set at around the same time. But knowing the story behind it makes it feel like much more than just a piece of memorabilia. It's a piece of airtexed history.

With thanks to Neil Dunham.

In praise of Will Hughes

In their book, Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski make a point about a ‘big English club’ that noticed its scouts who watched youth games often recommended blond-haired players – so much so that the club took the bias into account when assessing the scouting reports.

The conclusion was that blond footballers stand out because they are relatively rare and so more noticeable.

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This thought came to me on Saturday as Watford played Bournemouth, because my eyes were so often drawn to Will Hughes that I was trying to work out whether they were being disporportionately influenced by his hair colour.

That may sound a strange thought but all supporters watch matches with years of accumulated bias distorting their view. For example, some supporters praise perceived effort more than they logically should. A player who makes a futile but obvious effort to regain possession after giving away the ball gets a round of applause whereas the one who drops back into a pragmatic defensive position and bolsters the team’s effort to win back the ball from there does not.

As supporters we want to see effort as well as skill and, as a result, style counts for a lot. I am willing to bet that if Etienne Capoue ran in short, rapid steps rather than in his languid style, or charged to close down an opponent after making a stray pass rather than waving his arms in the general direction of one of his team-mates, he’d attract an awful lot less criticism. His style of play dilutes appreciation of what he actually does in a match.

Anyway, my conclusion was that Hughes was, by some distance, the most enjoyable Watford player to watch for the 75 minutes that he was on the pitch, and that had nothing to do with the fact he has hair brighter than the sun.

It was his first start since going off injured an hour into the Manchester United home match at the end of November and it surprised me that it was only his fifth Premier League start, so vivid were my memories of how well he’d played at Goodison Park and St James’ Park last year.

Hughes is not quick. He’s not big or imposing, although he is strong – wiry, probably – and difficult to knock off the ball. The threat he poses to opposition defences is not obvious but he has an elusive quality that makes the best attacking midfielders so difficult to contain. For defenders, it must be like grappling with a bar of soap in the bath. Just when you think you’ve got a grip, it slips away.

Where exactly was Hughes playing? It was hard to say. Just behind Deeney? False nine? False ten? Drifting in from the left? Or was it from the right? He seemed to pop up everywhere, and yet was rarely out of position. His ability to float added definition to the roles of the players around him too. Abdoulaye Doucouré, in particular, seemed to benefit from not feeling he had to be in two places at once. Capoue seemed content to sit a bit deeper and Roberto Pereyra was less isolated than in recent matches because Hughes managed to get the ball to him and bring him into the play in dangerous areas, notably with a little lay-off for Watford’s second goal.

By doing very little that is immediately obvious, Hughes seems to find space where others run into traffic. Sometimes he works the ball with neat, quick footwork but just as often he uses his body, throwing the sort of shapes you see from Dads on the dancefloor at weddings, allowing the ball to roll while his body puts defenders off the scent. When he’s trying to win the ball or bring it under control he doesn’t feel the pressure to do so with one definitive touch. He’s like Doucouré in that sense. He understands that sometimes a little toe poke, or a bounce with the sole of the foot to kill the pace on the ball and take it away from an opponent is enough. Then, after two, three, four touches, he’s suddenly wriggled free and the space has opened up around him. It’s a brilliant, almost indefinable skill.

Without getting too carried away – because he is far from flawless – Hughes is a player that makes you pay attention and it was clear that Watford became more predictable when he went off. It’s always slightly disappointing when the stand-out player leaves the field, as Hughes did after 75 minutes, but after so long out injured, and after three 20-plus-minute appearances as a substitute, he’d probably done enough for the day. What was puzzling, though, was the choice of replacement. Bringing on Stefano Okaka for Hughes was hardly like-for-like. It was akin to replacing a nimble little Lambretta with a milk float or bumper car.

And, of course, Okaka gave away the free-kick which allowed Bournemouth to pump the ball forward for their equaliser. Okaka does pay an unfair price for his size and style at times, but on this occasion he led with his arm and made the decision easy for the referee.

Once the disappointment of throwing away two points so late had faded, I was left with the sense that we’d seen an open, positive, attacking game as well as the hope that Hughes can stay fit for the remainer of this season and then become the fulcrum of the team next term.

The other thing I wondered was whether Etienne Capoue had dyed his hair blond in a bid to attract the attention of any scouts watching…

* * *

It’s an unrelated point because the faux rivalry with Bournemouth is a peculiar phenomenon but it cannot be denied that the fact they are able to sing about having been champions and we are not is incredibly irritating. Watford were only a minute or so away from winning the title decider against Sheffield Wednesday in May 2015 and, in injury time, fell victim to a free kick that was put into the penalty area and the ensuing failure to clear the ball. Plus ça change.

* * *

A comment made by a supporter at Watford’s At Our Place event this week caught my eye. I didn’t go to the event but followed on Twitter and so the way it was paraphrased may have shorn it of some nuance, but the essence was that the previous two home matches – the 1-0 wins over Everton and West Bromwich Albion – were boring.

It’s an intriguing thing, this. When the team is not winning, all that matters is the points. When the team is winning, we find other things to complain about and the idea of football as entertainment takes hold again.

It’s a generalisation, but while the money rolls in, the TV figures hold up and the stadia are (more or less) full, professional football teams have no obligation to entertain. Every place in the league table equals millions of pounds and so the accumulation of points does not need to be pretty.

Which is why Saturday’s game was so refreshing. An away team came prepared to play and, as a result, we saw some attractive movement and some clever use of the angles. But, on reflection, would we have preferred a downright ugly stop-start final 40 minutes?


What else is on the site?

Three more interviews in the Enjoy the Game 1980s series

Being Graham Taylor How I ghostwrote Graham Taylor's autobiography

If you don't shoot, you don't score An insight into how Watford pre-dated Opta stats

If you don't shoot, you don't score

If you don’t shoot, you don’t score. Anyone who played for Graham Taylor will be very well aware of that phrase because it was one of the tenets that underlined his approach to the game. Another of his beliefs was that the game of football should entertain people.

I started thinking about this as Watford laboured to muster their single attempt on target in a one-sided game at Anfield on Saturday evening. It struck me that the game was not so much a sporting contest for Watford as a contractual obligation, a fixture to be fulfilled before moving on to the next one.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with Javi Gracia’s approach to these matches – which appears to be to keep things tight for as long as possible, frustrate and quieten the home crowd and hope to steal something in the second half – the plan falls down spectacularly when Watford concede early goals, as they did at Arsenal last week and Liverpool this.

Take nothing away from Mohamed Salah, he is a wonderful player and a joy to watch when he’s not filleting your own team’s defence, but Watford’s participation in the game was reduced to the role of observers for long spells and any hope of getting on terms in the second half was dashed by the killer second goal just before the break.

The memory cheats us all, of course, and while it is tempting to look back at the 1980s and assume that every one of Watford's away defeats against the top sides was a glorious, swashbuckling failure, the truth is rather more prosaic.

We can all handle the odd heavy defeat away from home too, as long as the team is perceived to have at least played a part in the game.

The Premier League, and specifically the fear of slipping out of it, has forced teams like Watford to be cautious on occasions like this but, after shipping eight goals in two games, the conclusion from supporters is that they’d rather see their team go down with a bit of a fight than succumb to the inevitable with blunt, slow unadventurous play.

It seems strange to me, in this era of Opta stats and discussions about whether possession of the ball really is nine-tenth of the law, how little premium is placed on actually creating efforts on goal. Last season there was some talk following the 1-0 win against Hull City that Watford had failed to have a single shot on target – the three points had been secured thanks to a Michael Dawson own goal. Actually shooting the football at the goal with something approaching regularity seems to have become optional for some, although it's fair to point out that Liverpool did it pretty well on Saturday night.

One of the recurring themes in the interviews I did with players from the 1980s for Enjoy the Game was how Graham Taylor designed a way of playing based on four measurable things – how many shots and headers the team had on target, how many crosses were played into the box, how many times the ball was won back from the opposition in the final third of the pitch (the equivalent of today’s high press), and the number of passes it took to get the ball into the attacking third.

In the days before computers could do the job, Taylor was using a forerunner to Opta’s statistical analysis. There’s an account in Enjoy the Game, and also in his autobiography, of how Taylor adopted some of the theories put forward by Charles Reep, a RAF wing commander-turned statistician, who had influenced Wolverhampton Wanderers’s title-winning style of play in the 1950s. Reep wrote to Taylor in the early 1980s, sensing he might find a kindred spirit and when the pair met Taylor saw there was something to be gained from applying more detailed statistical analysis to the game.

Reep's analysis showed that the majority of goals came from moves of three passes or fewer, a theory that for some led to accusations of long-ball football but which Taylor always argued was not just about the length of the pass but also the speed and intent with which the ball was moved into areas where opposition defenders would struggle to cope.

Take a look at Salah's first goal for Liverpool on Saturday. Two passes take the ball from the centre circle to Watford's penalty area where the Egyptian puts Miguel Britos on his backside and finds the net. The second goal is a classic first-time cross and finish at the far post that John Barnes and Luther Blissett would have been proud of.

While I was writing Graham Taylor's autobiography, I had access to his Aladdin's cave of memorabilia and mementoes, including ring binder folders full of copies of the typed match reports prepared for him after each first team match. Many of these were compiled by Simon Hartley but there were other people who watched Watford matches for the same purpose, one of whom was a man called Neil Lanham, who also worked for Wimbledon and later England when Taylor was the national team manager.

One misconception is that Taylor slavishly followed Reep's ideas. He didn't. He took the parts of it that resonated with him and discarded other bits. Taylor used statistical analysis as a tool, not as dogma, as he would any idea picked up at a coaching course, for example.

We had initially discussed the possibility of including an example of the statistical analysis in Graham's autobiography but in the end there wasn't space and, as you'll see below, the detail of each report is quite dry because they were compiled for a purpose other than public consumption.

But they give an amazing insight into the detailed work that was being done at the time. When Reep first came on board, he told Taylor that if Watford followed his methods they would win promotion to the First Division. According to Taylor, Reep believed in his theory so strongly that he asked for a payment (a good-sized one, admittedly) only if Watford were promoted. Taylor put it to Elton John and Elton agreed that it was a no-lose situation.

I've chosen to reproduce a ten-page report into Watford's 5-1 victory over Manchester United at Vicarage Road in May 1985. Some of the codes used take a bit of deciphering (such as the references to coloured quarters of the pitch) but the reports make for interesting reading.

MU GT 1.jpg
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Each goal is described and then there is a breakdown of how many passes led to each shot. 'Reachers' is a shorthand term for a forward pass to a team-mate in the scoring area. Regained possessions is winning the ball back from the opposition and statics are all set-pieces.

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The detail about the type of passes and crosses may seem unnecessary when viewed in isolation but these reports were compiled after every match so that over the season patterns of success and failure could be identified.

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Attempts on goal are rated for their 'quality'. POMO stands for 'position of maximum opportunity' – to the lay-person this is when a player is in an area close to goal, in an imaginary semi-circle that runs from the edges of the six-yard box to the penalty spot.

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The conclusion is probably the most interesting section for supporters to read and it's telling that the result – 5-1 to Watford – was probably more generous than the statistics suggested they deserved. This was an incredible result, although it's probably also fair to point out that Manchester United had their eyes on the FA Cup final against Everton (which they won) five days later.

The players were not exposed to this level of detail. They weren't bored or bamboozled by the statistics. Instead, Taylor condensed the key messages and put them across in ways that were relevant to them, which is why so many of those players from the 1980s remember that the target was to try to have 20 shots at goal per match, knowing that on average it took ten efforts to score a goal and it might take more than one goal to win a match. As a result, there were some days when Watford achieved their aim and almost everything they hit on target went in – this 5-1 win against Manchester United, the 5-1 win at Tottenham that preceded it by two days, and the 8-0 win over Sunderland in 1982 spring to mind.

For Taylor the aim of the game was about taking shots at goal because he knew it would not only give his team the best chance to win the game but would also entertain them. Supporters are forgiving. They will understand when their team comes up against better opposition and falls short. But there is an important lesson for head coaches today that Quique Sanchez Flores failed to recognise in the closing months of his season and which Walter Mazzarri never grasped. While the result may be all important, supporters will always remember the manner of a defeat more keenly than the manner of victory.

What's new on the site?

It was inevitable, following Troy Deeney's comment about the size of Arsenal's cojones back in October, that karma would have a say at the Emirates Stadium.

There was an early Arsenal goal and another in the second half before Deeney had his penalty saved by Petr Cech and 20,000 invisible men, women and children in the 59,000 crowd joined in with the cheers and taunts.

Matches like this is the other side of the Premier League coin and as long as we get our fair share of heads along the way I'll take the odd occasions when we have to accept tails has come up and skulk away with them between our legs.

Here's a little run-down of what I'm up to next Monday and a summary of what's new on the site.

I've been invited by the Watford Writers group to talk about the process of working with Graham Taylor on his autobiography, a book which was completed after he passed away. It's next Monday (March 19) at Cassio Lodge, Oddfellows Hall, The Avenue, Watford. We'll be kicking off at 7.30pm and it's free to attend. I'll be talking about how I came to be the person to work with Graham on his autobiography, what it was like hearing about his life and how I turned those stories into a book. There will also be a chance to ask questions. If you're interested in Graham's life and career, or the peculiar process of ghostwriting, come along. Lionel Birnie


Enjoy the Game interviews
Simon Peat of the Watford Legends site has continued to upload my in-depth question and answer interviews with players from the 1980s. In the past two weeks a couple of my favourites have been added.

I thought Dave Bassett's account of his disastrous six months in charge was candid and, whether you accept his point of view or not, adds the other side of the story.

I could see from my meeting with the inimitable Tom Walley just what a force of nature he was and why so many young players graduated from Watford's youth ranks and made it in the professional game. This one is best read in a north Wales accent.

While it is a stretch to call Gary Plumley a Watford legend, he played a short and bizarre role in the club's history. It was perhaps one of the strangest incidents of the 1980s. The chief executive's son, who had been working in his wine bar in south Wales, was called up to keep goal in an FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham. I've spoken to everyone involved – including Graham Taylor – and I'm still not convinced there's one definitive account of this story.

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While I was interviewing the players from the 1980s, I was struck by how overwhelmingly positive they all were about their experiences. It wasn't that I was looking for hints of disharmony or dissent but I couldn't believe it was all perfect all the time. It was therefore really interesting to hear the perspective of Brian Talbot, who joined the club from Arsenal aged 32. It wasn't that Talbot was negative about his time at Watford but he had some thoughts and observations that added context.

Another three interviews will be added next week.

The 100 Greatest Watford Wins countdown continues
The countdown is into the 70s now and will continue with one match per day being added each weekday until we reach number one and the greatest Watford win of all-time (in my opinion).

New Cally's Disco T-shirt
Gold and Black have added a Cally's Disco design to the 1980s range. You can check out the whole store here. For those who are not aware, Watford's brilliantly gifted right-winger Nigel Callaghan was also pretty handy on the decks and in the early 1980s he put on a series of discos for young Watford fans.

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The Europa League Group Stage Fantasy Game

It is no exaggeration to say I really don’t care how Watford qualify for European competition just as long as it happens before I shuffle through the great turnstile in the sky.

Back-to-back victories over Everton and West Brom have moved Watford away from the relegation zone and have revived slim hopes of qualifying for the Europa League. As I understand it, seventh place in the Premier League will be enough as long as one of the big three left in the FA Cup – Manchester United, Tottenham or Chelsea – wins that competition in May.

Watford are now four points behind seventh-placed Burnley and with winnable home games to come it is not out of the question that they could catch the Clarets and finish ahead of them, Leicester, Everton, Bournemouth and anyone else who fancies a two-legged preliminary tie against a team from the former Communist bloc in late July.

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I hear, and dismiss, all the concerns about the thought of a club Watford’s size trying to compete in Europe and survive in the Premier League. Having missed the club’s only previous European adventure in 1983 because I was too young I just want to see the Hornets play a competitive away game or three in the Europa League before we find ourselves back in the Championship.

When I think back to the 1980s, the disappointment of losing the FA Cup final to Everton was compounded by the realisation that it would be them not us taking part in the European Cup Winners’ Cup the following season. Then English clubs were kicked out of Europe after Liverpool fans rioted at Heysel and by the time the ban was lifted Watford were back in the Second Division.

In 1993 I went to an Anglo-Italian Cup tie at Southend United (lost 3-0) in the hope that we might reach the phase of the competition that would give us a trip to Ascoli or Brescia. On our brief returns to the Premier League under Graham Taylor and Aidy Boothroyd I scoured the rules to see what might get us an entry to the preliminary round of the Intertoto Cup and cursed every time a booking cost us a place in the Fair Play League.

So you can see that I’m really not fussy. I just want to see Vicarage Road host European football again but, more importantly than that, I want to go on a few away trips.

And so, since Saturday evening, I’ve been indulging in something I call The Europa League Group Stage Fantasy Game.

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To play, simply cherry-pick your three ideal group stage opponents. Each time I play the game I come up with a different answer but if Watford were to make it I have a few preferences.

I’d like one side from behind the old Iron Curtain, requiring a trip deep into eastern Europe that takes a plane, a train and an automobile to get to. An austere stadium with a huge running track around the pitch would be a bonus.

I’d like an Italian giant that has fallen on relatively hard times and is forced to slum it in Europe’s second tier club competition – perhaps Inter or Milan.

And I’d like a city break-style destination – Club Brugge, FC København, Sparta Prague (for old times’ sake), Sevilla, Ajax or even Edinburgh (Hearts or Hibernian) – for a dash of culture.
Clubs with new grounds built on the outskirts of town need not apply. LB

The photos on this page are of Watford's team lining up before their first ever European game, against Kaiserslautern in September 1983, and captain Steve Sims with the West German team's captain Hans-Peter Briegel.

  Gold & Black have T-shirts inspired by Watford's first and only foray into Europe. Choose from our Levski 83, Jumping Men, Kaiserslautern 3-0 designs.

Gold & Black have T-shirts inspired by Watford's first and only foray into Europe. Choose from our Levski 83, Jumping Men, Kaiserslautern 3-0 designs.

The case against 'two up top'

The logical conclusion, following Stefano Okaka’s introduction as a 57th-minute sub and Troy Deeney’s 80th-minute winner against Everton, is that Watford should start the next home game against West Bromwich Albion with two centre forwards. After all, it stands to reason that having two men up front increases the chances of scoring and that at home, when the onus is on the Hornets to attack, it is essential to have a second striker on the pitch from the start in order to get on top and stay on top. Doesn’t it?

Not necessarily, and the evidence so far suggests that Javi Gracia will stick with his methods despite West Brom’s terrible form.

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Since taking over as Watford’s head coach, Javi Gracia has started every game with one centre forward. At Southampton in the FA Cup that man was Andre Gray and ever since it’s been Deeney.

However, in all but the Chelsea match, which ended in a resounding 4-1 win, Gracia has added a second striker in the second half, keeping the original front man on the pitch each time. Okaka came on for Etienne Capoue at half-time at St Mary’s, Gray replaced Richarlison at Stoke and West Ham and Okaka replaced Roberto Pereyra against Everton. Only against Chelsea did he leave the formation broadly untouched when he replaced Deeney with Gray in injury time.

Okaka’s impact against Everton was undeniable. The Everton defenders, who had kept Richarlison and Pereyra so quiet suddenly had to cope with a different type of threat. After almost an hour playing one way, suddenly they had to think and act completely differently, and that change of gear, and Okaka’s awkward, unconventional style, caused them problems. But just because both Richarlison and Pereyra did not enjoy much success last Saturday does not mean their contribution can be overlooked. They still needed to be dealt with – Everton frequently doubled up on Richarlison and they forced Pereyra deeper and deeper, from where he played the pass of the match after picking up the ball in his own half and landing it at Gerard Deulofeu’s feet on the right flank. Even when it looks like they are coping comfortably with the task, all that marking and monitoring work costs defenders physical and mental energy and softened them up for Okaka’s introduction. The adjustment required by the defenders is not to be underestimated, which is what made Okaka's introduction as a substitute so effective.

Supporters would no doubt love to see Watford come roaring out of the blocks and put the match to bed in the first half but even against wretched, downtrodden opposition that is not easy. Think of the way Swansea City played at Vicarage Road at the end of December. They were broken, demoralised and seemingly all set for a return to the Championship but they refused to lie down and turned the tables on Watford in the final minutes. West Brom are in even worse shape and in a sense have nothing to lose. So Watford’s first job is to ensure they stay in the match, assert themselves on West Brom and discourage them from any notion that this will be the match to kick-start some sort of revival.

Like the old comedy double-acts such as Morecambe and Wise, football history is brightened by the legendary strike partnerships. Watford have had several down the years – Cliff Holton and Dennis Uphill shared an incredible 84 league and cup goals in the 1959-60 season; Luther Blissett and Ross Jenkins scored 65 between them in 1978-79; and for a while Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo bucked the Premier League trend of playing with a lone striker, a false nine, or a decoy ten, or two supporting wide players, to great effect.

Of course, having written all this, Gracia will now buck his early trend, pick both Deeney and Okaka and attempt to bludgeon West Brom into submission in the first half-hour of Saturday’s game. I’d love to be proved wrong but I can’t see it happening because the cautious, cagey nature of so much Premier League football, particularly that played by teams outside the top six, means that the pragmatic way to win a game is to ensure it’s not lost first.

And the thing about football is that not only do none of us know what will work best but neither does Gracia – not for certain, anyway.


The countdown of 100 Greatest Watford Wins continues with matches No. 88, No. 87 and No. 86.

Welcome to A View From Row Z

While I was working with Graham Taylor on his autobiography, we visited Grimsby Town’s Blundell Park ground one day. As he reminisced about his playing days, he remarked on how the ground had changed over the years and went to sit in the main stand, which has remained largely the same since the 1960s. Later on we walked over to the other side of the ground and up to the back row of the much higher Young’s Stand.

‘Isn’t it funny,’ he said, umprompted. ‘We all of us watch the same game but we all have a completely different view of that game and we all see different things. The view from over there,’ he said, pointing across at the main stand, ‘is completely different to the view from up here. I could watch the game here and get a totally different impression of the game from someone sitting over there. Someone sitting behind the goal gets another view again. Is it any wonder we all come away with differing opinions?

  Graham Taylor at Blundell Park by Simon Gill.

Graham Taylor at Blundell Park by Simon Gill.

‘It’s why, when I was a manager, I liked to watch the first half of home games in the directors’ box because it gave me a much better impression of the play than sitting down on the bench next to the touchline.’

It made me think about the hours of analysis, the wall-to-wall discussion of matches on television, radio, in newspapers and online, all purporting to offer us answers. For all of that, football remains a game of mistakes, fortune, opinion and interpretation.

We can evaluate the formations and tactics all we like but even the former players on television, who can draw on the experience of hundreds of matches and team talks and thousands of training sessions, are only making educated guesses based on what they have seen. They are not usually party to the coach’s instructions, they cannot see the game through the eyes of the players on the pitch but they do have an understanding of how the game is played at an elite level. What chance do the rest of us have?

It remains a game of consequences, both intended and unintended, and as a result football retains its allure in an era when money is doing its best to eradicate any role for the underdog. A seemingly innocuous slip or mistake in the middle of the pitch suddenly becomes of pivotal importance if the ball ends up in the back of the net moments later.

We can’t help but review everything with the benefit of hindsight. A substitution that took place while the scores were level turns out to be a stroke of genius if the team goes on to win, and it’s seen as ineffectual meddling if they don’t. In a 90-minute game made up of millions of individual actions and decisions it seems bizarre that we home in on one or two incidents and use them as our frames of reference when evaluating a team’s performance.

Of course for us supporters the result ends up being our chief determinining factor. We will overlook a dreadful performance if the team wins – just see Saturday’s 1-0 win over Everton for evidence of that – as we appraise the match, the players and the coach’s decisions through the prism of victory or defeat.

Much of what we think we know is probably flawed – and I include my own views in that – but discussion and opinion are the lifeblood of a game that is devastatingly simple in concept though can contain intriuging complexities in its execution.

* * *

Last season, I wrote a column about Watford for Yahoo and enjoyed it for a while but had to bring it to a close because I was in the middle of writing Graham’s book and the job of trying to write in his voice was challenging enough without switching between his and mine. When Graham died the task became even more difficult and without the support of his family and my editors I’d not have managed to complete the manuscript. However, I had to halt the Yahoo column because it was an unhelpful distraction from what had become an all-encompassing job.

I sit in Row Z at Vicarage Road, hence the name of this blog, although I’ve not yet caught one of the defensive clearances made famous by the cliché. Taking Graham Taylor’s words of wisdom as my guide this blog is not meant to be a definitive account of events, nor is it designed to persuade anyone of my own point of view, it is simply one supporter’s opinion, occasionally drawing on more than 30 years’ experience watching the team as well as conversations I've had with some of the past players and managers. And so to the disclaimer. I make no apology for bias, selective vision or irrationality contained within these pages.

* * *

So, now you’re here, what else is on this website?

• I am adding the matches from my book The 100 Greatest Watford Wins one at a time here. The countdown is in the high eighties now and, as I’m adding one match each weekday, we’ll get down to the top ten in a few months time. Click on the Matches tab in the menu to see the games that have been posted so far.

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• All the interviews done for Enjoy The Game are being put on the Watford Legends site and you can also find an index on this site here. There’s around 40 interviews with players, coaches and staff who played a part in the 1980s. The latest batch of three contains an interview with Dave Bassett which might not be to everyone's taste but I found his willingness to be candid engaging.

• You can also check out a range of T-shirts inspired by Hornets history and produced by Gold & Black. Admittedly the coldest spring week since records began is probably not the ideal time to buy a T-shirt but they do hoodies too.

Next time: I'll write a bit about the football and why 'two up top' might not be the answer.